In 1985 Jim Niehues moved to Denver, CO. and looked for work. As a graphic artist he found contact information for legendary ski trail map artist Bill Brown.
After meeting Brown in his office he left with one project, a map of part of Winter Park Resort. After successfully completing his first map the work snowballed.
“I was just looking for some work as a starving graphic artist…I walked in looking for work and walked out with a career.”
Now he’s handpainted more than 350 trail maps for around 200 ski resorts, including five maps for Sun Peaks Resort LLP.
Niehues first came to Sun Peaks in 1993, flying into Kamloops on a small plane. He fondly remembered the flight attendants invited him to travel in the cockpit with the pilots to allow him to take photos.
“It was a ride that I’ll always remember,” he said.
During his visit he skied before flying above the mountains to take photos the map would be based on.
The aerial photos are the first step and one of the most important, he said.
“I really depend heavily on them, Brown did too.”
When planning his maps he also uses reference maps and other material from the resorts.
“There’s never just one photo that will do the job, especially for Sun Peaks.”
New technology like Google Maps and Google Earth have helped his research.
“Technology changed (the process) a great deal…before the aerial photos were taken on a film camera using 10 to 12 rolls of film. I’d have to develop them on location to review with the resort on site.”
From there Niehues will create thumbnail sketches for the resort to review. He said this step is important to ensure each lift lines up accurately and with enough room for the trails.
After approval he begins a comprehensive sketch before painting with watercolour.
Terrain and sky are airbrushed, then shadows of trees starting from the top of the mountains. The base and facilities are added last before another proof is sent to the resort.
Once approved it’s scanned and Niehues can make small adjustments before sending a final copy.
“At a mountain like Sun Peaks, to be able to get everything onto one view so when it’s opened it’s all there…it’s very hard to do.
“The real problem with that is two lifts starting from the same point next to each other going up each side plus all the rest in the middle…it’s probably one of the most difficult mountains I’ve done.”
Despite the difficulty Niehues said he was happy with the latest map.
“It turned out great and we were even able to get the horizon in…it’s very gratifying.”
Christina Antoniak, director of marketing and communications for Sun Peaks Resort LLP, said it was a pleasure to work with Niehues on the latest map.
“It wasn’t even a question of whether or not we wanted to continue working with Jim,” she said. “We were just hoping that he would take on our project knowing that he’s been phasing into retirement.
“He has such a well-crafted, and perhaps innate, ability to bring a ski area to life in a three dimensional way. It’s so impressive to see how he’s able to convey the size, scope, and detail in such a space, and always with the skier in mind to ensure that he’s creating a user-friendly and representative piece of artwork. No detail is overlooked or insignificant.”
Niehues is also finishing work on a book with nearly all of his illustrations, including two of Sun Peaks.
A Kickstarter campaign for the book raised more than $500,000, $492,000 over the goal. More than 10,000 copies have presold and another 25,000 will be printed.
“Thanks to all of those skiers out there,” he said. “If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have had